Like many Americans, the fashion designer Norma Kamali has often found herself in the company of people who, as she put it, are “obsessed with pickleball and do nothing but talk about pickleball.” Ms. Kamali, 77, said that some players have even tried to recruit her, so to speak. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re a designer, you should design a pickleball dress!’”
Ms. Kamali started making clothes in the late 1960s, and she has had a lot of success with sports-adjacent styles. Her sweats collection from 1980, for instance, famously showcased that the gray cloth material of sweatshirts could be used to create tailored jogging suits and skirts. (The term “athleisure” reportedly started popping up around that time, too.)
By last year, Ms. Kamali had heard enough pleas for pickleball dresses that she decided to name a piece she had already designed for her spring 2023 collection the “Pickleball Dress.” The “super mini” dress, as she described it, is a skintight sleeveless style with a built-in bodysuit and a hemline just long enough to cover a bum. Available in black and neon green, it costs $145 and is sold at Net-a-Porter, Shopbop and Neiman Marcus, among other stores. The day Ms. Kamali released the piece on her website, she said, 25 dresses in black were sold.
Like real estate developers and broadcast companies, apparel brands have moved to cash in on the pickleball economy as more people have started to play. According to a 2022 report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with about five million people playing it.
Heritage athletic wear labels including Fila, Nike and K-Swiss have marketed clothes and accessories for pickleball, and newer brands like Recess, Luxe, Tangerine and Joola have largely built their businesses around the sport. At least one tennis player wants in, too: Venus Williams has a selection of garments called “The Pickleball Edit” on her Eleven by Venus Williams website.
Cynthia Rowley has released pickleball paddles, and last year Alice + Olivia introduced a “pickleball collection” that included shirts, skirts and a cardigan. “When I Googled to see what women wear, nothing came up!” said Stacey Bendet, the founder of Alice + Olivia. “So I thought, Let’s make cute pickleball looks.”
Ms. Kamali has never played pickleball. But she was a regular at Studio 54, and said that the polyester-Lycra fabric she used to make her dress would be as comfortable when kicking up heels on a dance floor as it would when jumping and lunging on a court.
“Having a bodysuit under the mini gives you a lot of movement,” she said. “You can do whatever you want and it will never be too short.”
“You can play tennis in it too, I’m sure,” Ms. Kamali added. “But pickleball is cool and of the moment, and I think this look is maybe a little edgier than what people have been wearing.”
Pickleball was played by almost as many people aged 65 and older in 2021 as it was by people between the ages of 6 and 17, according to the 2022 report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Sartorially, this diversity in age translates to an eclectic on-court style. But that style is generally “playful” and “fun” across the board, said Anna Leigh Waters, 16, a professional pickleball player who is ranked No. 1 in women’s doubles, mixed doubles and women’s singles by the Professional Pickleball Association tour, one of the sport’s three national leagues.
“I see a lot of young girls wearing crop tops and skirts,” said Ms. Waters, who lives in Del Ray Beach, Fla. “And with the older crowd, I see a lot of pickleball-related clothing like shirts that say ‘dinks and drinks’ with an image of a pickleball and, like, margarita glasses.” (A dink, for the unfamiliar, is a type of pickleball shot that barely clears the net.)
Ms. Waters, who is sponsored by Fila, has worn dresses on the court but prefers skirt sets; her favorite set is pink and red and has ruffles, a cutout and a cape. She said that her pickleball wardrobe abides by only one rule (set by USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body): Clothes can’t be the same bright yellow shade as the ball.
Simone Jardim, a pickleball coach and player who from 2016 through most of 2020 was ranked No. 1 in women’s singles by the Professional Pickleball Association tour, said that “a lot of players have found a second shot at life in pickleball,” so there is a tendency for some to wear “lively” clothes that express their enthusiasm for the sport. Many of those clothes, she added, incorporate neons and other saturated colors that hark back to styles from the ’80s.
“Because of the fact that some of the players are baby boomers, you have to think that was like their prime time, in the ’80s,” said Ms. Jardim, 43, who lives in Naples, Fla. “They want it to be colorful because they’re happy.”
Her pickleball wardrobe over the years has included vibrant colors and loud prints, but now she likes to play in simpler clothes with enough coverage to protect her skin from the sun. “The last thing that I want is to be playing in a crop top,” Ms. Jardim said.
Hannah Johns, the director of content at the Professional Pickleball Association tour, said that pickleball players “really wanted to differentiate themselves from the tennis group, so you saw them being irreverent and playful.”
She added that as pickleball evolved from a leisure activity to a sport with national leagues, clothes on the court became more refined. “People are like, ‘Well, I might be on TV — time to brighten up the wardrobe.”
Still, even with fashion designers like Ms. Kamali giving pickleball attire a glow up, Ms. Johns believes the sport has an inherent informality that will prevent it from getting too buttoned-up.
“You are just playing with paddles and a plastic ball — pickleball is never going to have the sophistication, I think, of a sport like tennis,” she said. “But people actually like that.”
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